Sorry, But You Should Apologize, Rinse, and Repeat.

There is one brand of shampoo sold in the U.S. whose entire line seems to contain a particular Jennifer-repelling chemical. When I get an unfortunate whiff of any of their products, my synesthetic brain screams “Ack! Please, no. Not the ‘white, ridged plastic’ smell!”*

Nothing else in my experience of the world so far generates this particular synesthetic combination, so these shampoos evoke a very specific loathing in me. Nevertheless, I’m going to assert that my commentary on their new advertisement is not tainted by the unpleasant smell/feeling of white, ridged plastic but independently informed by my experience as a normal human being.

The shampoo company in question, Pantene, put out an ad yesterday encouraging women to stop saying “Sorry” all the time. It’s supposed to make women notice that we apologize a lot and suggests that we can claim new personal power at work and at home by the words we use (or don’t use).

But the visual text of this ad (viewed over half a million times in its first 24 hours on Youtube) belies this so-easy solution to women’s inequality. In one scene, a woman in a meeting says, “Sorry for asking a dumb question …”. In others, a woman apologizes for handing her child over to his father while she’s juggling food in the kitchen; for pulling the blanket over to her side of the bed she shares with her husband; for starting to tell a story at the same time a man does; for already using the shared armrest in a bank of waiting-room chairs when a man sits down after her.

“Why are women always apologizing?” the video script asks. Well, duh.

How about because men take up an inordinate amount of space in public places? Watch them. No, really. Men have been socialized to expect to walk straight down the sidewalk; women have been socialized to step aside. Men move faster, stand wider, reach farther in shared space so that women are constantly having to duck, slide over, and squeeze in to make the room that men demand.

How about because society has been structured so that women’s professional ambitions are constantly called into question: Should women work? Should women make as much — or more — in salary than men? Should mothers try to hold a job outside the home? Are women really able to control their emotions, their mysterious biological processes, their gentle natures well enough to do the job like a man?

How about because men interrupt women all the time (No, really. Listen.), especially if the topic is something technical, scientific, or money-related? Or because often when a woman says something in a meeting it goes ignored but a man can say the very same thing a few minutes later and it’s applauded like the best idea since sliced bread?

Instead of pushing the responsibility for women not being heard back on women, how about if men stop taking up more than their fair share of the space — and start apologizing when they do?

For example, it would be an amazing transformation of American life if men stopped to listen when a woman was talking in a meeting, waited until she finished talking, and then thought about what she said before talking themselves. If one of the men accidentally did start talking over her — because her idea was so exciting he could hardly contain himself — he would quickly check himself and maybe even apologize.

I accept the shampoo manufacturer’s challenge to stop apologizing so much. But a change in women’s speech behavior won’t make much practical difference — won’t help women “shine strong” in the sticky parlance of Pantene — if men don’t reflect on and change their own behavior.

Men, if they are honest observers of themselves, should notice the dozens of times a day they enact their expectations that women will be the ones to step aside, listen, be quiet, make room. It’s not because they’re bad people; it’s because our culture is sexist.

To riff on another shampoo ad campaign: We will have to work together, but we’ve got to wash that misogynistic, patriarchal, oppressive behavior right out of our hair.


* Via Wikipedia: “Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia, from the ancient Greek σύν [syn], ‘together’, and αἴσθησις [aisthēsis], ‘sensation’) is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” I have sound/color, smell/color-shape, taste/color-shape synesthesia. A number of my family members, including relatives across several generations, have some form of synesthesia.

June 19, 2014 Blog Posts